Ranjay Gulati on the power of deep purpose

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Ranjay Gulati on the power of deep purpose

May 15, 2024

Three questions to Ranjay Gulati on the impact of meaningful engagement on company performance

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by Neelima Mahajan 
Illustrations bySasan Saldi

Strategy and organizational growth expert Ranjay Gulati explains how meaningful engagement can unlock your potential for high performance.

1. How can organizations embody the idea of purpose in a way that everyone gets it and acts on it?  

People get stuck on the idea that a purpose is a mission statement. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says, the mission statement is the starting point, not the end point of this purpose journey. The hard part is to turn that purpose statement once you have it, into making purpose personal. One of the starting points for it, of course, is to articulate and communicate your purpose.

How the message is communicated in an emotionally resonant way is important. You then have to connect it to your KPIs and look for correlates of purpose, such as how do we create value and who do we create value for? So, we start measuring different dimensions of value we create. Beyond the measurement, structure and purpose, the hardest step is making it personal: how do you get people to connect with it in a meaningful way? In some companies, they took a radical step where they would say, we need to get employees to think about their own personal life purpose, because if they haven't thought about their life purpose, how are they going to connect to some company's purpose? Unilever had 60,000 employees go through personal life purpose training. BlackRock did that for all their employees.  

Portrait photo of Ranjay Gulati, arms folded and looking into the camera, against a backdrop of a green hedge.
The right approach to purpose: Ranjay Gulati believes leaders must fundamentally change not only how they execute purpose, but also how they conceive of and relate to it.

2. How does culture intersect with purpose? 

Ranjay Gulati

Ranjay Gulati is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. His latest book, Deep Purpose, explains why companies need to view purpose as an "operating system for the enterprise." 

Culture and purpose provide a form of guardrails for action. In the crazy turbulent times we're in right now, where things are changing so fast, you need some constants around which you can build and grow your business. Culture provides behavioral mileposts. Purpose provides the North Star and existential milepost. Both of these together work in support of each other. If you're going to shape your purpose, you're going to also work on your culture. As Lego and Etsy tried to transform their businesses, they reflected on their purpose and tried to recraft their purpose, but they also reflected on that culture. While they were doing this, they were also working on their strategy and their organizational systems.  

3. How do you figure out when an organization is doing purpose washing? 

Purpose washing is an unfortunate consequence of what we see in the world today. Theranos had a purpose statement, as did Enron and Purdue Pharmaceuticals. All this makes people cynical. The cynical view is one where actions don't connect to what your purported statements are. In a transparent world like we're in today, customers can sniff this out, employees will leak you out. Other stakeholders will smell you out. It's a fool's errand to think that you're going to come up with some purpose statement and expect others to somehow buy into it. If anything, it does a huge disservice to the organization. It's a demotivator. You'd be better off not having a purpose statement than have one that is completely duplicitous or misleading. Organizations once they embark on this can unlock tremendous potential with their purpose, but they can also do themselves tremendous damage if they're engaged in purpose washing. Some organizations haven’t understood that purpose unlocks economic value and social value, employee productivity, supplier partnerships, employee morale, connection to your community and so forth. Purpose is good for business.  

About the author
Portrait of Neelima Mahajan
Neelima Mahajan
Neelima Mahajan is Editor-in-Chief of Think:Act magazine. She has been a business journalist for two decades in various publications in India and China, including a stint in the founding team of Forbes magazine in India. In 2010-11 she was a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, where she was also a recipient of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant for an Africa reporting project. Neelima has a keen interest in management thought and has done extensive work in the domain. She has interviewed several world-renowned management thought leaders, Nobel Prize winners and global business leaders. In 2010, Neelima received the Polestar Award for Excellence in IT and Business Journalism, one of the highest awards in journalism in India.
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